RAF Northolt

RAF Northolt, or NHT to the IATA and EGWU to the ICAO, is a Royal Air Force Station serving London, England. Besides Air Force flights, the air station also has many private civil flights, including those by the government and VIPs. There is one runway: 07/25, which is 5,525 feet (grooved asphalt).

Airport history

NHT originated in 1909, following the first flight across the English Channel by Louis Blériot. That flight caused the British Army to consider the need to defend the United Kingdom from future air attacks. As early as 1912, a proposal was made for an aerodrome in the area where RAF Northolt now stands, although it did not progress. However, the onset of WWI necessitated a new air station for the Royal Flying Air Corps, and in January 1915, the government requisitioned the land near the Northolt Junction railway station. Construction began immediately, with the new station opening on May 3rd, 1915, as “RFC Military School, Ruislip.” It was home to the No. 4 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron. As most early RAF airfields were named after the nearest railway station, the airfield was named Northolt (despite being in South Ruislip). Aircraft utilized the station to fly sorties in defense of London against Zeppelin raids, and the No. 18 Squadron was formed with Bleriot Experimental biplanes. Unfortunately, their slow speed led to heavy losses in the battles with the German Fliegertruppe. The following year, the No. 43 Squadron was equipped with the Sopwith 1 ½ Strutter aircraft (by the Fairey Aviation Company, which used NHT for test flights from 1917 to 1928). The squadron sorties over France from January 17th, 1917, later taking part in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In 1925, both the No 600 Squadron and the No. 601 Squadrons of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force were formed at NHT, with both deployed to RAF Hendon in 1927 with the No. 600 Squadron returning in 1939. That same year the air station added a 732 by the 46-meter concrete runway, with RAF Hendon becoming one of its satellite airfields later in the year. Moreover, Polish pilots were trained on-site (and taught English), where they practiced formation flying using tricycles with radios, compasses, and speed indicators. During WWII, NHT was utilized by both the RAF and Polish Air Force squadrons in defense of the UK, the first RAF station to utilize the Howker Hurricane via the No. 111 Squadron. In August 1940, the German Luftwaffe bombed the airfield (along with other RAF airfields in the area, with a total of 4,000 bombs falling within two miles of the airfield within 15 months (although only two were recorded as hitting the airfield itself, as the airfield was camouflaged to resemble civilian housing - with a fake stream painted over the runway and hangars decorated to look like houses and gardens). Moreover, on September 15th, 1940, during the Battle of Britain, the No. 1 Squadron, No. 229 Squadron, No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron, No. 504 Squadron, and part of the No. 264 Squadron were all based at the station (under control of the No. 11 Group RAF), with all but the No. 264 Squadron (who flew the Bolton Paul Defiant) flying Hawker Hurricanes. During the battle, the Polish Squadron shot down the most enemy aircraft. In all, thirty Allied men (including servicemen from Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, New Zealand, Poland, and the UK) were killed during the battle, with ten of the men being Polish (with the Polish War Memorial now standing at the southeastern corner of the airfield, dedicated to all Polish airmen who lost their lives during the war). In all, the squadrons at NHT shot down 148 Luftwaffe aircraft, damaging 52 others, with 25 more claimed by pilots and recorded as “probable.” Following the Battle of Britain, the NHT remained a base for daytime fighter operations. It included the No. 302 Polish Fighter Squadron, the No. 229 Squadron, and the No. 615 Squadron, which all arrived before November 3rd, 1940 (with the No. 308 Polish Fighter Squadron and the No. 306 Polish Fighter Squadron later joining in 1941 to form the No. 1 Polish Fighter Wing). The following year, the Polish Fighter Squadrons took part in Operation Jubilee (the rain on Dieppe). In 1944, reconnaissance squadrons No. 16 Squadron and No. 140 Squadron (operating Supermarine Spitfires and de Havilland Mosquitos) moved to NHT, with the No. 69 Squadron (operating Vickers Wellingtons, modified for photographic reconnaissance) arriving later, combining with the other two squadrons to form the No. 34 (PR) Wing. Moreover, on March 25th, 1943, the RAF Ferry Command became the RAF Transport Command and used NHT as a base for the transfer of new aircraft from the factories to the airfields. As such, the runway was extended to accommodate the larger aircraft used by the Command. In June 1944, NHT became home to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s personal aircraft (a modified Douglas C-54 Skymaster), which was used to fly him to meet with other Allied leaders. The first non-stop intercontinental flight from NHT occurred between July 20th and 21st, 1944, via a Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber (named “Marco Polo”) flying from London to Washington, DC, and then returning to Northolt within 18 hours. An Avro York flew non-stop to Cairo in 10 hours and 25 minutes in November. In March 1946, a new runway (31/13) was built). NHT was used that year for civil aviation purposes as the nearby London Heathrow Airport was under construction. The air station was a major British European Airways (BEA) base while also being serviced by Aer Lingus, Alitalia, Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), and Swissair. BEA introduced helicopter services to Hays Mills Rotor Station in Birmingham and London Heathrow in June 1951 via Westland-Sikorsky S51s. The following year the airfield became the busiest in Europe, with 50,000 aircraft movements, with the RAF maintaining their presence all the while. In 1954 Heathrow Airport opened, bringing civil flights at NHT to an end, with the airfield reverting to military use only. In 1956 the Aeronautical Information Documents Unit (AIDU) moved to the station, tasked with providing information on airfields, communications, and navigational aids for the benefit of aircraft safety. During the 1960s (as instrument landing systems and global positioning systems were not yet available), there were a few occurrences of aircraft bound for Heathrow landing or attempting to land at NHT by mistake. To prevent these errors from recurring, the letters NO (for Northolt) and LH (for Heathrow) were painted on two gasometers on the approach to each airfield. Although military movements originally dominated NHT, by the 1980s, these were outnumbered by private aircraft (mainly corporate jets), although these were limited to 28 movements per day, which remained in effect until 2008. In November 1992, No. 38 Group RAF took control of NHT to restructure the RAF. On December 16th, 1994 the new southside Operations Building opened in place of the old Northolt Airport Terminal building. On April 1st, 2000, the RAF Strike Command was reorganized, with the No. 38 Group disbanded and NHT now under the control of No. 2 Group RAF. A miscommunication in August 1996 led to the collision of a Spanish Learjet with a van. Although everyone involved only sustained minor injuries, the subsequent investigation found the crew’s lack of understanding of English and military air traffic control procedures contributed significantly to the crash, leading to the installation of an instrument landing system on the runway. Moreover, aggregate-filled safety pits were installed at each end of the runway, with works completed on January 21st, 1998. The Ministry of Defense launched Project MoDel (Ministry of Defense Estates London) in 2006, consolidating its operations at NHT while closing several other London-based RAF stations. This led to extensive redevelopment of the station to accommodate the new operations. These included new hangar facilities for the No. 32 Squadron and a new headquarters and sorting facility for the British Forces Post Office. Additionally, as RAF Uxbridge had closed control of the Battle of Britain, Bunker passed to NHT, while the St. John Ambulance service moved to a new location at NHT in December 2010. In June 2008, the remains of a Hawker Hurricane flown by Flying Officer Ludwik Witold Paszkiewicz, the first pilot in No. 303 Squadron to shoot down an enemy aircraft (who became a flying ace after shooting down six enemy aircraft) who was killed in action over Borough Green on September 27th, 1940 were donated to NHT. Furthermore, in September 2010, a memorial to British, Polish, Australian, and New Zealand aircrew was unveiled. In October, the hangar that had housed Churchill’s aircraft, the former Squadron Watch office, and the Operations Block (a prototype of the “Dowding System,” which facilitated the chain of command’s issuance of orders for the interception of enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain) were given Grade II listed building status. NHT is the only RAF airfield used during the Battle of Britain to still operate by the RAF. On May 2nd, 2012, four Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft arrived at NHT to provide air superiority protection for London during the 2012 Olympic Games; the first time fighter aircraft had been stationed at the base since WWII (they left on August 16th, following the culmination of the Games). In February 2013, the overnight base of the London Air Ambulance was moved to NHT from Denham Aerodrome, as it cut down on flying time, thereby providing savings for the Air Ambulance charity. In April of that year, the Ministry of Defense announced a proposal to increase the number of private flights from 7,000 to 12,000 per year, thus increasing the income generated by the airfield. Flights would still be limited to 40 per day, with the increase gradually occurring over a three-year period. The runway closed on April 15th, 2019, for resurfacing, with flights diverted to other airports until operations resumed on November 11th, 2019. 

Airport location

The air station is located in South Ruislip, 2.3 miles from Uxbridge in the London Burough of Hillingdon, western Greater London, approximetely 6 miles north of Heathrow Airport. 

Airport facts

  • Rumor has it that when the government official tasked with purchasing the land at Ruislip for the airport arrived on site, he was holding his map upside-down, leading to the purchase of the land on the wrong side of the railway line, including the old Hill Farm. 
  • In December 1946, a Douglas Dakota 3 took off during a heavy snowstorm, crashing onto the roof of a house in South Ruislip. The owners of the house had not yet moved in (as they were due to be married a few days later), and the occupants of the aircraft, who were unharmed, escaped by climbing through the loft of the house and leaving through the front door. The house, which still stands today, was later named "Dakota Rest." 
  • NHT has been the center of media attention on several occasions: it was the arrival place of the body of Diana, Princess of Wales, following her death in a car crash on August 31st, 1997; it was the arrival of the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II from Edinburgh Airport on September 13th, 2022, before being taken by road to Buckingham Palace; and finally, it was the arrival place of Ronnie Biggs, the fugitive Great Train Robber in 2001, who had escaped custody in 1965 and had been hiding out in Brazil all the while. Although he was seriously ill at the time of his return, he was nonetheless arrested by waiting for police officers (which he knew would happen, as he stated he would be willing to accept the consequences of his actions) and sent to Belmarsh Prison to complete the rest of his sentence. 
  • The FBO at NHT is Universal Aviation.

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